Monday, August 27, 2012

Donna Margherita: An Italian Place that Stands Out, But Not Necessarily for its Pizza

Name Donna Margherita
Address 183 Lavender Hill, London  SW11 5TE
Phone 020 7228 2660
Web site
Main dish price range   £7.75-9.90
Rating  3.5 Stars.  Great restaurant if you're there for the atmosphere, the football, and the burrata.  
Recommended dishes: Burrata with eggplant puree and pesto, Saltimbocca Fritto e al Forno 

Nick and I, as we've indicated on this blog before, are nothing if not suckers for a good Neapolitan pizza.  In 2009 we took a special trip to Rome, Naples, and the Amalfi Coast, partially inspired by our near weekly trips to our favorite Neapolitan pizza place in New York.  Our regular ritual involved making a pilgrimage there after the gym or work, gulping down a whole pizza each-- savoring the gooey center and the pitch-perfect fresh basil-- before washing it down with a glass of house red wine. Perfezione! 

Football Jerseys inside Donna Margherita.
So we were thrilled when an Italian friend told us about Donna Margherita, a small trattoria in South London that she said was a favorite haunt of employees working at the Italian embassy. This seemed like the perfect spot for us to continue our quest to locate and consume London's best Neapolitan pizzas, a journey that had already made us fans of Exmouth Market's Santore. Reading up on Donna Margherita, we were even further encouraged by its bevy of followers: No less a vaunted source than Dan Lepard, the former pastry chef at St. John's, has called it a source of "near-perfect" pizza.

When we arrived on a sunny Saturday, we were immediately taken in by Donna Margherita's quirky, down-to-earth charm.  Italian soccer jerseys hung on one wall, as did a black and white picture of a person we're told is among Southern Italy's most famous comics-cum-mimes. (Side note: This would be a killer place to watch an Italian Serie A game.) A sculpture/city scene made largely using pizza dough stood in one corner begging for attention. We immediately got the meal off to an auspicious start by ordering a selection of antipasti (not on the menu, but you can ask for it), which included what turned out to be a delicious plate-- a large chunk of mouthwateringly perfect fresh burrata cheese, flown in from Italy and presented in a bed of aubergine puree. Like a good burrata it cut open to reveal a gooey rich  center, rich as butter. A smear of homemade pesto snaked along the side of our plate, tasting like perfection.

Donna Margherita: A burrata to remember.
Next up, we ventured into some main courses.  Although we were there to taste the pizza, at least primarily, I decided to also tuck into one of the dishes on the menu's "homemade pasta" section-- the O'Scialatiell ro' re Ferdinando, a classic seafood scialatielli dish. (On our trip years ago to Amalfi, one of my favorite meals was a seafood scialatielli cooked by a nice grandmotherly like woman in a tiny restaurant in the basement of her house-- so any dish of this sort has a special place in the depths of my food memories.)  At Donna Margherita, the pasta had that perfect consistency, bordering on gummy, that makes homemade pasta such a consistent delight.  The seafood-- which included bits of squid, clams, and a giant prawn on top-- also tasted  fresh and well prepared.  The dish, however, was a bit more salty and garlicky than I would typically consider ideal, and could have used a few more tomatoes to cut those flavors.  Still though, a solid offering.  

Sampling the pasta offerings: the O'Scialatiell ro re' Fernando.  
We then turned to the main attraction: the pizza. Nick and I always try to test a new Neapolitan pizza place by testing the most simple iteration of the dish-- the Margherita pizza, which ideally should be the perfect balance between tart tomatoes, warm mozzarella, and pieces of cool fresh basil.  The best version of this dish is presented piping hot, with an almost liquid center. At Donna Margherita, however, the pizza came out lukewarm, ruining some of the pizza's inherent magic.  The middle felt cool and soggy and some of the tastes dulled by this presentation. A friend who ordered a slightly more complicated pie-- the Prosciutto e Funghi-- said he felt similarly: the pizza was adequate, but definitely not a knockout.

Not living up to the hype: The Margherita pizza at Donna Margherita.
Our meal, however, did include one very pleasant main-course surprise. The Italian friend who joined us skipped the pizza altogether, choosing instead to get one the restaurant's saltimboccas, a small sandwich native to Naples. (Not to be confused with the "saltimboccas" endemic to Rome and parts of Switzerland, Spain, and Greece-- a meat dish that involves marinating prosciutto or veal in wine or saltwater.)  I'd the Naples version of this sandwich before, and always marveled at the texture of the pizza dough that's used as the sandwich bread, which some restaurants, Donna Margherita included, make crunchy and crackly-- almost like a cracker-- by frying and then baking.  Here, this hard-to-find dish was practically perfect.  The restaurant offers versions with four different fillings, and the Saltimbocca Fritto e al Forno, filled with provola cheese, cherry tomatoes, fresh rocket, and shavings of parmesan and porchetta, was a stunner. If I lived anywhere near Lavender Hill, this dish alone would make me a Donna-Margherita regular.

Taste the crunch: The divine Saltimbocca Fritto e al Forno.
All in all, Nick and I were glad to have visited Donna Margherita, and would definitely come back again for sandwiches and some quality football/soccer watching.  Crowds of Italian speaking families also added to the place's quirky charm. For now though, our go-to Neapolitan pizza place remains Exmouth Market's Santore.  But, our journey to try all of London's best-reviewed places continues. The lengthy lines so far have prevented us from trying Franco Manga in Brixton, but we'll report back once we do. Donna Margherita on Urbanspoon

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Pho Express: A Fabulous Vietnamese Spot Strikes Back

Name Pho Express 
Address 149 Upper Street, Unit B, London N1 1RA 
Phone none 
Web site none
Main dish price range £4.5
Rating 4 Stars.  The best place we know to nurse a pho addiction.  

Recommended dishes: 
Someone's studying up on one of London's best banh mi places.

When we last checked in with Pho Express, this tiny, Islington outpost serving Vietnamese food and crispy banh mi was still finding its footing, experimenting with some new ingredients and tweaking the menu and sandwich seasonings with every visit.  Now, several months in, we feel the need to give our loyal and faithful readers an update.  Why?  This place has gone from being good to simply amazing.

One of the first things I feel the need to address is the actual pho itself, which last time, as you may all remember, Nick and I had yet to try. Now, it's worth noting that I have always not been the world's biggest pho fan. I'm never sure what to do when I get the varietals that have hoisin sauce and radishes in little containers on the side, and I've worried in the past that I've taken versions of the soup and either overly seasoned it or kept it so simple I was missing some of the key allure. So it's much to my relief that at Pho Express, the four types of pho on hand (£5-6 each) are made entirely by you for the staff-- and are unlike any I've had before with their amazingly delicate flavorings and quality ingredients. Here, the broth is a light, beef broth, loaded high with large pieces of meat (your choice of chicken, beef, prawn or chicken plus beef), tons of fresh cilantro, and bits of lime that give it a refreshing citrus finish.

Pho shizzle: The amazing beef pho (Pho Bo) at Pho Express. 
Adding to the giant bowl of goodness the staff will readily add fresh, green chilies-- a favorite of Nick's, but perhaps not recommended for the less tough among us. A thick glob of egg noodles sop up the broth inside. Not only have I come to appreciate this pho, I crave it-- and eat it-- on a multi-times a week basis. The staff tells me it's North Vietnamese, different from the kind you'd typically find restaurants. Whatever it is, it's delicious.
Pho fan, pho-ever. 
And the banh mi served these days is now an almost equally palette-pleasing treat. As I mentioned last time around, the best banh mi is a study in opposites-- the crispy, flaky toasted bun and the well-sauced filling and pate inside balancing it out with warm, gooey goodness. The team at Pho Express has always nailed the baguette, offering up the perfectly crisp type of bread product you'd expect to find at a French corner shop. After experimenting with different dry herbs and flakes, however, the team seems to have decided to stick with the more classic iterations of the dish that they do best. My favorite is the barbecue pork (£4), which has cucumbers and sweet, pickled kohlrabi and carrots on top, along with fresh green chilies, which must be asked for as an extra topping. The Special banh mi (£5) is also the perfect balance of tastes and textures with its thick pieces of barbecue pork, homemade pate, and dried pork floss. They even have a Thap Cam banh mi (the most expensive banh mi at £5.5), which is billed as an "all in one option"-- presumably with grilled chicken and pork as well as pate and floss. I've been so hung up on my current favorites, I haven't yet ventured to try it.

Taking in the local Angel scene, and the yummy banh mi.
Pho Express is certainly rapidly turning into a neighborhood star here in Islington, and certainly my favorite go-to lunch place.  In addition to the sandwiches and pho, the little spot also serves up Vietnamese rice bowls, including a Belly Pork and Spare Ribs in Caramel Sauce (£6). It's still short on seating space though-- besides a couple seats right in the window, they have a very low table with two seats sort of crammed haphazardly in front of the ordering counter, as well as a few seats outside-- relevant if spring would ever grace us with her presence. For now, I'm happy to slurp my soup and wash it down with a pitch-perfect, super sweet Vietnamese Iced Coffee (£2.50).  A nice bit of perfection.   
Believe the hype.

Pho Express on Urbanspoon

Mestizo: Yes, There are Good Tamales in London

Name Mestizo Restaurant & Tequila Bar 
Address 103 Hampstead Road, NW1 3EL
Phone 020 73874064
Web site
Main dish price range £9.80 - £24
Rating 4 Stars. It's got a 3-star dinner, a 4-star brunch, and a 5-star tamale 
Recommended dishes Tamales and Pastor Tacos

London, of course, is a long way from Mexico-- the land of Coronas, sun, and ceviche. And Nick, as many of you know by now, is originally from California, probably the best place to find perfect Mexican food in the United States. (I'm dreaming of taco trucks as I write these words.)  So, you could say we were highly skeptical when a group of charming London School Economics alums we met told us they'd found the spot where real Mexican nationals go to pick up their tamales and eat authentic Mexican food. Immediately, we were intrigued. Could this exist?  And... would it be the next best thing to tacos on the beach in Tulum?

The place our new friends recommended was Mestizo, a nicely appointed restaurant with red walls and white tablecloths just a five minute walk from the either the Euston or Warren Street tube stations.  Knowing it was slightly more sleek than the usual place we review here, Nick and I decided to first try this restaurant on Valentine's Day, and our meal there quickly started off on a real high note. The Tamales (£5.40), our first appetizer, struck the perfect balance.  Peeling back husk revealed a mouthwatering soft and lightly moist dose of masa flour, wrapped around a generous meat filling. For the two tamales that came with our order, Nick and I opted for the delicious puerco con salsa verde (pork with green salsa) filling-- which had the perfect amount of kick-- and also the queso con rajas (cheese with peppers), a classic. Our meal was off to an auspicious and authentic start.

Answering a craving: The delectable Tamales at Mestizo.

Next up, we chased down our tamales with the restaurant's Sopa de Tortilla (£6.50), a nearly perfect fresh tomato soup with bits of fresh, homemade, corn tortillas sprinkled throughout.  The accompaniments that came on the side were also a particular highlight, and we enjoyed the white, crumbly cotija cheese, as well as the fresh avocado and bits of dried chilies.  As loyal readers know, Nick is never one to turn down a good opportunity to devour his share-- and often my share-- of chilies, so being able to sprinkle them liberally is always a plus.

A good back-up Valentine's date: Mestizo's divine Sopa de Tortilla.
When it came to the main courses, however, we began to feel a little deflated.  I've always been a sucker for a good mole, a term that most Mexican lovers know can mean a whole variety of yummy sauces that typically blanket tender, moist chicken and fresh rice and beans. At Mestizo, Mexico's national dish is presented in its most popular and classic form: A deep brown mole poblano, made from chili peppers, almonds, and about 20 other herbs and spices, finished with unsweetened chocolate. Mestizo's Mole Poblano main course (£14) was definitely good, but it was a bit more watery and not as thick as the best iterations I've had of this dish. The flavoring also wasn't as complex and multilayered as I would have liked.  I'd definitely rank it a B, and a good way to answer your mole craving in London in a pinch. For £14 though, and used as the main attraction of the dish-- as opposed to a seasoning in a taco-- I wanted more.

More Mole?  I'm not so sure. 
Our second main course, which left us particularly unimpressed, may have been more of a strategic ordering mistake.  Nick and I opted for the Pollo Ticul (£14), a classic Yucatan dish.  The chicken is speckled with achiote seeds-- lending a slightly bitter, earthy sort flavor-- and then sweetened with orange juice and honey, covered with vegetables, and cooked in a banana leaf. While it seemed decently well-executed, it wasn't nearly as spicy as we'd expected and lacked the sort of flavors we crave most in our Mexican food.  The whole thing was rather bland, mushy, and unmemorable, sort of like something I'd expect at a high-street chain.  It also wasn't cheap.

Bring on the bland: Mestizo's Pollo Ticul is a unmemorable mashup.
Ready to put Mestizo in our good-not-great category, Nick and I contacted our new friends, and they then told us the real secret of Mestizo lovers-- the restaurant's £20, all-you-can-eat, Sunday brunch. We assembled a big group, and headed together to this giant orgy of Mexican food-- and this time, Mestizo definitely didn't disappoint.  The waitresses kicked off our meal by offering us a selection of aguas frescas (pitchers of sweetened, ice-cold, fruit juices), and then we descended on the buffet, which included both pre-made items as well as two cooks on hand to make ready-to-order dishes like huevos rancheros (runny eggs with tortilla, fresh salsa, and refried beans) and chilaquiles (mole-soaked tortillas topped with eggs). Mestizo's selection of classic tacos were also made on the spot, their tortillas warmed on a griddle. Classic flavors like tinga (shredded chicken with tomatoes), pastor (marinated pork and pineapple), carnitas (slow-cooked pork), and rajas con crema (poblano pepper with sweet corn) were all available-- and many of them were excellent.

When it came to the regular buffet food, there were also some real highlights. Cerdo en Pipian, a pork in green chili sauce, had a great flavor and was kept piping hot, and a chicharron en salsa verde was also particularly delicious. Bonus authenticity points go to Mestizo for also offering nopales, a type of cactus widely available in Mexico that our friend had yet to find anywhere else in London. The one thing I'd leave behind, however, was the flan dessert, which was soaked in an overpowering orange syrup that overshadowed the flavor.

Overall, Nick and I are definitely planning to return to Mestizo, most likely on a Sunday afternoon.  (Writing this now-- on a Sunday, in fact-- I'm hearing Mestizo's call.) Also worth noting for the younger and more party-minded than us: Mestizo also supposedly has a world class selection of 160 tequilas, served at a bar downstairs that Travel and Leisure magazine once dubbed the "sexiest" tequila bar in all of Europe. Party on, Wayne-- or better yet, Waynitos.

Mestizo on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Needoo Grill: A Tayyabs Alternative that Just Might Best the Original

Name Needoo Grill 
Address 87 New Road, E1 1HH
Phone 020 72470648
Web site
Main dish price range £5-15
Rating 5 Stars. Just as good as Tayyabs-- believe it. 
Recommended dishes Daighi Slow Cooked Dry Meat, Needoo's Peshwari Nan, Daal Baingun

Nick and I have recently gone to Paris for a couple weekends-- what London food lover can resist it?-- and while researching where to engorge ourselves on that side of the channel, I've been spending a lot of time on the Chowhound message boards. And that's, curiously, how I learned about the Needoo Grill. On the London section of Chow, Needoo Grill is enjoying something of a glory ride, with all sorts of foodies saying that this restaurant is better than New Tayyabs-- the famed, lines-out-the-door, addictive Punjabi kebabs house.  And it certainly has the credibility to make that believable: Needoo, which is around the corner in from Tayyabs' little kebab kingdom, was founded by a former Tayyabs chef.  Just walking past you catch a whiff of the same sort of meaty deliciousness.  (See our the blog's take on Tayyabs here.) 

Meat Lovers: A peak inside the kebab counter at Needoo Grill.
Nick and I clearly walked into Needoo with sky-high expectations.  And I'm thrilled to say, we were not disappointed. Needoo, with its spunky red walls and dining room lit by a skylight, is much smaller than Tayyabs, with just 80 seats. It takes reservations, a blissful luxury for anyone who's ever stood lurking between the tables at Tayyabs, waiting for one to open up or e-mailed that restaurant to see about a table, only to never hear back. And the food at Needoo remains amazingly cheap (by London standards, anyway) and sinfully delicious.  Every greatest hit from Tayyabs are also available here, with a few, Needoo-unique gems to boot. 

Can I eat this everyday?  Daighi Slow Cooked Dry Meat.

Needoo has a whole slew of kebabs, as well as the same, sizzling lamb chops beloved around the corner. (Here they're almost good as Tayyabs-- but a bit on the anemic side-- available 4 chops for £6). Seek Kebabs are on offer too, tender and juicy and only 90p each. Our favorite dish though is the Daighi Slow Cooked Dry Meat (£7 for small portion, £13.80 for large one). This entree, with a slightly different name, is also on the Tayyabs menu, but here it achieves the impossible, slightly besting the original version. To those unfamiliar with this curry dish, Punjabi chefs make it by first roasting spices (like chili, tumeric, garlic) and building up a thick paste in the pan. Then the meat is added in and cooked for hours, until each piece starts to break apart and the sauce becomes almost dry. At Needoo, the flavor was more powerful than at Tayyabs and the lamb was the cooked to tender, almost gooey perfection.  We sat at the table for a few minutes after eating it, dazed. 

I want Candy: The sweet Peshwari naan.
Another highlight of Needoo is that the vegetables and daals on offer and memorable and well thought out in their own right-- unlike the afterthought they sometimes feel like at Tayyabs. The restaurant boasts eight vegetarian entrees, which can make a nice addition to a table already loaded sky high with finger licking chops and meat-intensive curries.  A favorite of ours is the Daal Baingun (£5.20 for a small, £10 for a large), a yellow daal loaded with soft, gooey baby aubergines/eggplants. Another highlight is the transcendent Peshwari Naan  (£3 each), a pillowy, sweet naan drizzled with butter and filled with nuts, sugar, and anise seed-- a heavenly combination that really should be on more Indian menus, or better yet, just handed out on every street corner. The world would be a much happier place. 
Veggie heaven too? Last remaining schmear of our order of Daal Baingun.
And although they may be neck and neck in terms of the quality of their food, when it comes to service, you're in a whole other superior world at Needoo. I'm no Gloria Steinem, and I certainly understand that different cultures behave differently towards women, but I've always felt a bit miffed and disappointed by the dismissive way women are often treated by the Tayyabs staff. I've had several times when I've gestured for the waiter at that restaurant to come to my table and he's walked up, looked at Nick (avoiding eye contact with me all together) and said, "Sir, is there something your table will be needing?"  (Other lady friends of mine have similar grumbles.) Contrast that with my first experience at Needoo: When Nick and I debated whether we should add an order of lamb chops to the mountains of food already on our table, the waiter sensed that I was pushing for more food. (I'm always the glutton-- always.) When we ultimately passed up on the order, the waiter brought a single lamb chop over to our table anyway, and said to me with a smile, "A gift for the lady on the house!"  VIP treatment, indeed.   

Snack time: The fresh veg offered before the meat arrives. 
A few more random reflections for readers: Like Tayyabs, the restaurant is BYOB, always an obvious plus. The mix of raw veggies they give you while you wait for your food are surprisingly refreshing, and a nice way to prep and cleanse before the meat onslaught.  And although I always preach the idea of ordering off menu if it appears there are secret menu items ordered by regulars and locals, in this one case Nick and I felt disappointed. After seeing a couple big tables of South Asian customers eating whole, roast chicken, we asked for the same during one trip to Needoo and got one for just  £10.  It was good, but in a bland, unmemorable rotisserie chicken way; nothing like the spectacularly seasoned, unforgettable Needoo dishes we were used to. Our verdict was a definite pass. 

Lone offender: Bits of our whole roast chicken, plus a yummy seek kebab.
All that said, Nick and I have now pretty much stopped going to Tayyabs in favor of Needoo-- its nicer, friendlier, and-often-more-delicious cousin.  Now if only we could convince our friends, many of whom still want the original Coke to Needoo's Pepsi. We heard the hype. Now we believe it. 

Needoo Grill on Urbanspoon

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Khamsa: Is London's Best Eatery an Algerian Restaurant in Brixton?

Name Khamsa
Address 140 Acre Lane, Lambeth, London SW2 5UT 
Phone 020 7733 3150
Web site
Main dish price range £10.90-£13.90
Rating 5 Stars.  The best of its genre-- or perhaps any genre-- in London.    
Recommended dishes 
 Djadj bel Zitoun (Chicken and Olives Tajine) and the Walnut, Pomegranate and Cinnamon Couscous

I am going to do away with the build-up openings and go straight to the point on this one: Khamsa, a cozy, Algenian restaurant in Brixton, may flat out be the best restaurant in the city. We've been sitting on this not-well-known fact for awhile now, simply because I couldn't bear to put up a write-up until I had some proper pictures that could help convey the scope of deliciousness here. Nick and I discovered this restaurant this summer when we headed down to Brixton to see one of our favorite bands, Future Islands, play a show at one of the local music venues-- and between the food and the fantastic music that came later, the evening was simply heavenly.  We live 45 minutes away, but we've trekked back to Brixton to eat here five times since. Every time we walk out a little dazed and awestruck.

Whenever I begin telling someone about the magic that is Khamsa, the moment I say "Algerian," I get a somewhat quizzical look, so let's tackle that first. Algerian cuisine, while not as well known to many outsiders as Moroccan, shares a host of influences and staple dishes with its fellow North African, Berber-influenced cousin.  Meats are cooked in tajines, often stewed for hours over low, charcoal fires designed to preserve their rich flavor. Fluffy couscous is a staple. And many dishes are seasoned with the spices that dominate the region: cinnamon, cumin, coriander, and a shock of saffron.

The Special Chicken Tajine at Khamsa during a recent visit.
At Khamsa the result is often stunning. Here, some of the wonder of food is the chef's dedication to super fresh ingredients, often cooked-- just feet from where you're sitting-- with a loving attention to the preparation and presentation.  On a recent evening, Nick and I tucked into a special chicken tajine (£11.5), which was a masterstroke of perfectly combined flavors and warm, goopy goodness. The super-tender stewed chicken was pillowed in a mash of sweet potatoes, cooked spinach, and sultanas (British speak for  golden raisins), and then dusted with fresh almonds and ras al hanout. The last ingredient, for the uninitiated, refers to a combination of North African spices and literally translates into "top of the shop" in Arabic, meaning the best spices a seller has to offer.

Another highlight here is the couscous, perhaps the most fluffy and seasoned incarnation of the dish I've ever encountered. The excellent Walnut, Pomegranate and Cinnamon Couscous (£3) is exactly like it sounds: a sweet, feather-light dish with tiny bits of pomegranate speckled throughout like little hidden treasures. The tajines on regular rotation on Khamsa's one-page menu are also equally delicious and adventurously unique. On past visits, I've adored the Djadj bel Zitoun or Chicken and Olives Tajine (£11), which features braised chicken cooked with green olives, carrots, coriander, garlic and saffron,  topped with a sweet jolt of caramelized onions, cinnamon and orange zest. The Tajine of Spicy White Beans, Lamb Meatballs, & Merguez (£11.50), also hits all the right notes, combining spicy lamb meatballs, white beans, and tomato-doused sausage in a heavily spiced dish.

The sampling of seven salads.
Many of the amazing parts of the Khamsa experience, however, are some of the things that surround the main course.  The bulk of Khamsa's dining space is a small, one room eating area that transports you to a charming slice of North Africa.  Tables are covered entirely in large silver trays; pink and red silks and beaded pillows dot the seats lining the windows; and a large trailing plant-- brought by the owners when their restaurant opened three years ago-- stretches up from a pot in the corner, it's tendrils curling across the ceiling. (A larger area downstairs, dotted with lanterns, seems reserved for larger groups-- and one time when we visited was filled with a festive group of North African locals, a good sign for any place's ethnic credibility.) Nick and I usually begin our meal with the delectable mix of seven salads (£12), an amazingly fresh mix of seasoned, cold vegetables, served in a cheery, sunburst bowl. Fresh, seasoned carrots are a highlight, as well as an aubergine (eggplant) spread, and a cold chickpea dish topped with sausage.

One of Khamsa's divine cakes,
courtesy of
And ending a meal at Khamsa is often an experience worthy of a separate five-star rating in and of itself.  The chef prides himself on his intricate, tiny cakes-- many displayed with pride in glass-domed pie trays on the small counter that separates the dining area from the chef's open kitchen. (Watching this dedicated, husband-and-wife team work is yet another Khamsa treat.) Although the cakes vary, his creations in the past have included pistachio flavored tiny macaroon style cakes; dried figs dipped in chocolate and filled with almond; and rolled pastries made with almond paste and rosewater, often adorned with tiny, decorative, icing flourishes. Pair one of those indulgent deserts with Khamsa's giant silver tea kettles of seemingly bottomless, piping hot mint tea, and you'll see why I could spend many evenings at Khamsa. When the food and the atmosphere is this good, it makes you never want to leave. Khamsa on Urbanspoon

Friday, December 2, 2011

Gourmet San: Almost-There Sichuan Food in Bethnal Green

Name Gourmet San
Address  261 Bethnal Green Rd, London, UK E2 6AH
Phone 020 7613 1366
Web site none
Main dish price range £6-£14
Rating 4 stars.  Almost a masterpiece. 
Recommended dishes 
Stir Fried Aubergine with Spiced Chili Sauce

Gourmet San-- a tiny, Sichuan Chinese  restaurant in a the very not-central neighborhood of Bethnal Green--- quite improbably has one thing weighing heavily in its favor: Buzz, and LOTS of it.  The Guardian food critic has mooned over it.  An article in the Evening Standard said members of the "nose to tail set" and semi-celebrity chef Jacob Kenedy count as regulars.  All that sounded like mouth watering to me.  Never a fan of goopy, corn starchy Chinese food, I consider dry-fried, Sichuan food to be my drug of choice-- and I'd been feigning for it recently.  Bar Shu, the only other Sichuan restaurant we'd tried in London, so underwhelmed me and Nick (and was so expensive) we deemed it not even worthy of the time it would take to write it up. 

Spoils:  BBQ Lamb Skewer & Chicken with Chili Sauce in Chong Qin Style. 
When we rolled up on a recent Saturday evening, Nick and I were immediately felt our spirits lift. Like our favorite hole-in-the-wall ethnic haunts back home-- where the focus is on the food, not the decor--  Gourmet San is definitely low frills, a Spartan cousin to the decadent, red-tapestry draped atmosphere at Bar Shu.  The crowd also felt pitch perfect: About half the clientele on the evening we visited were Chinese, with trendy, young Shoreditchers making up the difference.

We  took a seat at a white, paper-covered table and quickly dived in by ordering one of the BBQ Lamb Skewers, which seemed to be a very popular item among the crowd the night we visited, with plates of them gracing nearly every table. At £1 a piece, the relatively simple skewers had a nice meaty taste, without being loaded with the cheap, cooking-oil flavor that can mar a lot of low-cost meat kebabs. Still, without the dry, spicy taste that true Sichuan enthusiasts love, we were ready to try the real stuff. 

The delectable Dry Fried String Beans with Mince Pork and Chili.
The first main dish we tackled: the Dry Fried Green Beans with Mince Pork and Chili (£6). This is a dish I've always loved at Sichuan joints, so I was excited when I saw it listed here as a "Chef Special"-- and it definitely didn't disappoint.  It had the perfect, dry-fried smokey flavor, and the bits of pork were excellent-- lightly fried and not so fatty as to overwhelm the dish. Peppercorns were also hidden throughout the stack of greens, adding a nice bit of grit between the teeth and adding the perfect, Sichuan taste. (Read: My mouth tingled with the familiar, loving numbness only Sichuan peppercorns can provide.) 

Things were slightly less impressive with another old-standard favorite of ours: Chicken in Chili Sauce Chong Qin Style (£8). For those unfamiliar with this stroke of Chinese culinary genius, this dish, from the town of Geleshan, China, is made by frying small nuggets of meat in a wok stacked high with a mountain of dried, red chilis, and supplemented with garlic, scallions, and peppercorns. When done well in the kitchen-- something Nick and I learned how to do reading Brit cookbook writer Fuschia Dunlop-- the chili-infused oil in the wok coats the rich chicken, infusing its with spicy moisture. Here, sadly, the chicken was too fried and dry for our tastes, and the ratio of chilis to chicken felt miscalibrated.  Instead of combing through the chilis to find the meat-- some restaurants literally nickname this dish "hunt and peck chicken" for that reason-- the meat was all clearly visible in this London version, perhaps a nod to the famed British aversion to spice.  

Brits call it aubergine, Americans call it eggplant.  I call it delicious!
The real masterpiece of the evening, however, came from an unexpected dish : The Stir Fried Aubergine with Spiced Chili Sauce (£7).  This eggplant/aubergine entree was bathed in mouth watering chili oil that achieved the perfect degree of reach-for-the-beer-glass kick.  And the chili-infused aubergines were so gooey and rich they seemed to coat our mouths, melting on our tongues as we ate them.  Nick and I talked it over after enthusiastically gobbling up every last bite and agreed this dish was quite possibly the best Asian aubergine dish we'd ever had-- a statement we don't make lightly. 

All in all, Nick and I felt excited about Gourmet San, which definitely showed some real flashes of genius.  I'm not quite ready to order it as takeout twice a week yet-- and yes, we did do that with our favorite local Sichuanese place in New York-- but I'm definitely eager to explore more of the menu. And if I change my mind, there's good news: The restaurant's delivery staff miraculously delivers all the way to Angel. 
Gourmet San on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Santoré: We Found Our Go-To Neapolitan Pizza Place...for Now

Name Santoré
Address 59-61 Exmouth Market, Clerkenwell, London EC1R 4QL
Diners outside at Santore.
Phone 020 7812 1488
Web site none
Main dish price range £6.20-£13.80
Rating 4 stars. A stunner of a restaurant with only occasional misses.  
Recommended dishes Margherita pizza 

One could be forgiven for wondering if Santoré, our new favorite pizza joint in East London, even meets this blog's definition of an ethnic restaurant: "a restaurant serving the food of a particular ethinc group, with an aim to primarily serving expatriates from that ethnic group."  Located in trendy Exmouth Market, this bustling cafe, which strives to make authentic Neapolitan pizza, attracts a motley crowd-- a few tables of Italians, but also lots of big groups of red-faced, drunken British people just enjoying the big glasses of wine and pizza available by the meter. When Nick and I first walked in, we felt it was sort of part-way, if not all the way, in the ethnic category.  The waiters greeted us with a volley of friendly"buongiornos" and the pizza oven lurking in the corner definitely looked as authentic as authentic could be, based on our past experiences in Naples.

The typical scene at Santore.
But once we bit into the pizza we were convinced we had to include this brightly lit, low-on-atmosphere locale on the food blog. Although Santoré offers a few things that don't feel too authentically Italian (Dutch Veal Escalopes with Breadcrumbs, anyone?) diners who stick to the Neapolitan pizzas, Santore's specialty, are in for a real treat. We recommend the standard margherita pizza that appears in the pizze section of the menu-- not the pizze special section-- and sells for £6.20.  Like at any good Neapolitan pizza restaurant, this single-plate, one-person pie came to us hot and fresh out of the oven. The basil pieces were massive; the sauce tasted so fresh it burst with flavor; and the pizzaiolo nailed the absolute hardest part of the enterprise-- the center. The middle of the pie achieved that perfect, delicate balance where it managed to be hot, gooey, and melt-in-your mouth delicious, without going so far that the pizza lost all integrity when you tried to lift up the first slice.

My half of our margherita was gone pretty quickly.
Before we go on with our thoughts about Santoré though, a bit of background on our pizza philosophy: We're generally what you'd call simple pizza people. There are few places-- Pauly Gee's in Brooklyn, being a big exception-- where we ever gobble up pizzas loaded with non-standard ingredients like rocket (a.k.a. arugula), lemon, and olives. At most of our most beloved Neapolitan pizza joints, we prefer to let the perfect, bare, basics (tomato, cheese, basil, and big hunks of sea salt in the crust) stand out without too much adornment. Our favorite Stateside pizza place, in fact, so dogmatically adheres to the simple-is-best philosophy that on most days it only offers five basic pizzas on its  menu-- and not one of them has meat.

So, the margherita is always a big test for us.  A secondary test that we expect most places with a good margherita to ace: The buffalo margherita, a version of the basic pie where regular mozzarella is replaced with much stronger, buffalo mozzarella instead, usually producing a more delicious result. Surprisingly though, this is not the case at Santoré.  When we ordered this pizza-- which costs £7.65 and appears in the pizze special section of the menu-- they gave us a pie that was still perfectly executed from a crust standpoint. The cheese though was chilled in the middle, and felt like it had just been pulled out of cold water by the chef-- a bizarre choice that our waiter seemed to indicate was purposeful on the restaurant's part. If so, Santoré, as good as you are, let me tell you: You aren't doing yourself any favors with that approach.

The mixed salad.
Besides the pizza, the other things on the menu were impressive without being a total wow. The mixed salad (£3.50) was a nice way to start dinner, being a pleasant mix of arugula and cherry tomatoes, dusted with crispy ham.  And the sauteed spinach (£2.40), which was buttery and piping hot, also made a lovely side. Santoré also gets some bonus points for having ample seating outside, which makes for a nice atmosphere you can watch the hustle and bustle of Exmouth Market. These cold winter days, they're heating up the outdoor tables with red heat lamps-- with surprisingly successful results. (The lamps produced the odd light in our pictures though.)

For now, we're loving our post-gym trips to Santoré-- so much so we've already been back three times. We're going to keep looking for that pitch-perfect buffalo margherita though. We have a few more far-flung places to try that we crowd sourced with some Italians we know, so we'll be reporting back with more reviews soon.
Santore on Urbanspoon